Skip to main content
Move the World.
An Insulin Pill Could Change Everything for Diabetics

Millions of diabetics need to take insulin every day, and that means lots of needles—as many as 3-4 shots a day. But the injections are painful, annoying, and easy to put off, and as a result, many people wind up taking insulin less often than they should.

But scientists at Harvard say they have developed the “holy grail”: a pill for insulin, taken orally—no syringes, pumps, or pens required. Animal studies show that the pill delivers insulin as well as a regular injection, and it promises to be scalable for mass production. More research is needed before human trials, but if the pill makes it to market, it will have a profound impact on the quality of life for millions of diabetics worldwide.

What Is Diabetes? (You may read this part in Wilford Brimley’s voice.) Diabetes is actually two different diseases. In Type 1, your pancreas fails to produce insulin—the protein that helps your body absorb glucose from your blood—while in Type 2, your body gradually stops responding to the insulin it is making. Type 2 accounts for about 90% of the 30 million cases of diabetes in the US, and it tends to develop later in life, often as the result of obesity and poor diet. The effect is the same: you can’t absorb glucose, so your blood sugar rises, damaging the kidneys, nerves, eyes, heart, and other systems.

If Type 1 is left untreated, you can literally starve: even if you eat a lot, you can’t get the energy from your blood to your cells. The sugar just builds up in the blood, poisoning you, while your body cannibalizes its stores of fat and protein, causing rapid weight and muscle loss. The immediate consequences of going untreated will vary based on how severe the disease is, but in the long run, high blood sugar is always bad for you and will shave years off your life.

Insulin for Everyone: Type 1 diabetics must take injectable insulin, since their pancreas has stopped making it almost entirely. Shots have to be administered 2-4 times a day—and not too close together, either, or your blood sugar will fall so rapidly that you go into a coma.

People with Type 2 can try diet and exercise to keep their blood sugar low, and there are a variety of drugs that can help manage insulin use and production. But as the disease progresses, many Type 2 diabetics develop resistance to the drugs or max out what their pancreas can produce. Insulin shots go from an emergency backup to a daily routine.

Unless you have an expensive insulin pump, there’s no way around the injections. But shots are painful and unpleasant, and people often put them off if they’re not urgent, resulting in fluctuating blood sugar levels that build up long-term damage.

Pills to the Rescue: A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science offers a ray of hope for the needle-weary: an oral pill that can directly deliver insulin, all by itself. One scientist called this the “holy grail of drug delivery” because it has eluded researchers for so long. A series of hurdles stood in their way: stomach acid destroys insulin proteins, and so do digestive enzymes, and even if the insulin makes it to the intestines intact, the molecule is too big to be absorbed through the intestinal wall.

The researchers tackled these issues step by step. They designed a casing that protects the insulin from stomach acid and only dissolves in the more basic environment of the small intestine. Inside the casing, the insulin is mixed with compounds that allow it to survive the enzymes in the intestine, get absorbed through the intestinal wall, and then travel directly to the liver (where insulin does most of its work).

Our approach is like a Swiss Army knife,
where one pill has tools for addressing
each of the obstacles.

Samir Mitragotri, , Harvard University

The animal studies show that the oral delivery is just as effective as direct injection—and possibly better. The way the pill is absorbed and mediated through the liver is much more natural than the shots, which deliver a huge surge directly to the bloodstream. Their data shows that shots caused a drastic but short-term drop in blood sugar, while the pills provided a more moderate and longer-lasting reduction—something that could be more useful, day to day.

This study shows remarkable results...
The implications of this work to
medicine could be huge.

Mark Prausnitz, , Georgia Institute of Technology

The Upshot: More research on the long-term effects of oral insulin is needed before the pill can go to human trials. But it’s got a number of things going for it. First, it works (at least in a Petri dish and in animals). Second, the compounds that let the insulin get absorbed (a nutritional supplement and an artificial flavor) are already commonly consumed and generally regarded as safe. Finally, the process is scalable enough for mass production, and the formula is stable enough for long-term storage and transportation.

It still has a long way to go, but right now, momentum is on its side.

More About

Sponsored
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Watch Now
Sponsored
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Genomic sequencing saved his live. Now he wants everyone to have access.
Watch Now

After he was diagnosed with life-threatening prostate cancer, Intel’s Bryce Olson sequenced his genome which offered clues to new treatments for his disease. While the current standard of care for cancer patients includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, genetic sequencing opens the door for new possibilities beyond these traditional approaches. Bryce explains his personal mission to encourage others to get their genome sequenced, how to do it, and why cancer patients…

Dispatches
"Q" Probably Won't Make You Rich, but It's an Experiment Worth Watching
"Q" Probably Won't Make You Rich, but It's an Experiment Worth Watching
Dispatches
"Q" Probably Won't Make You Rich, but It's an Experiment Worth Watching
It's not the next Bitcoin (or a path to riches), but it's an intriguing idea.
By Brendan Markey-Towler

It's not the next Bitcoin (or a path to riches), but it's an intriguing idea.

Dispatches
Linking Genes to Depression Could Revolutionize Treatment
Linking Genes to Depression Could Revolutionize Treatment
Dispatches
Linking Genes to Depression Could Revolutionize Treatment
Saying something is “genetic” used to be a fatalistic diagnosis. But with modern medicine, it could be the key to…
By Dan Bier

Saying something is “genetic” used to be a fatalistic diagnosis. But with modern medicine, it could be the key to treatment.

Technology
eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
Watch Now
Technology
eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
This legally blind man is seeing his wedding for the first time. 15 years after he got married.
Watch Now

Some people who are legally blind can still see, but images can be blurry and in low contrast. eSight has created a headset that can give sight to the blind through three technologies. First, an HD camera captures video. Second, a built in computer increases contrast and clarity. Third and finally, the image is projected on displays in real time. 15 years after marrying his wife, eSight helped a legally…

Superhuman
Stem Cells Give Paralyzed Man Movement
Stem Cells Give Paralyzed Man Movement
Watch Now
Superhuman
Stem Cells Give Paralyzed Man Movement
Could an injection of embryonic stem cells into the spinal cord reverse paralysis?
Watch Now

After a devastating car accident, Lucas Lindner was left almost completely paralyzed. But an injection of embryonic stem cells in his spinal cord has given him back almost complete function of his arms and hands.

The New Space Race
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?
The New Space Race
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?
Private companies have worked with NASA for decades. Can the next generation of space companies get by without the government…
By Mike Riggs

Private companies have worked with NASA for decades. Can the next generation of space companies get by without the government as their biggest customer?

Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Watch Now
Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Jerral was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq and left paralyzed. Now he's partnering with researchers to regain his independence. »
Watch Now

Jerral was serving in Iraq, his tank was hit by a roadside bomb. The attack left him paralyzed and without his left arm. But rather than letting his injuries define him, Jerral is fighting back with the help of the world’s most advanced prosthetic arm. He’s working with a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins to test the arm that could help Jerral and many other wounded vets like him…

Technology
Prosthetics Enter a New Age of Beautiful Form and Incredible Function
Prosthetics Enter a New Age of Beautiful Form and Incredible Function
Technology
Prosthetics Enter a New Age of Beautiful Form and Incredible Function
For centuries, prosthetics didn't change much at all, but the past 10 years has seen an incredible leap forward in…
By Mike Riggs

For centuries, prosthetics didn't change much at all, but the past 10 years has seen an incredible leap forward in the way they look and work.